The Big House made for some tough memories for Talihina in 2009 and 2010.
The Golden Tigers almost got to the Big House in 2008, but the heartbreak that Taggart Lockhart and Jordan Eagle Road experienced as freshmen was a precursor to what was about to happen in each of the next two years under coach Chris Gillespie.
It had been a childhood dream for Lockhart to play at the Big House. Talihina squared off against Apache at Midwest City in the 2008 state quarterfinals. Lockhart knocked down a shot at the free throw line with just three seconds to go, and Talihina was up, 70-69, with a trip to the state semifinals all but certain.
Then came the heartache.
Gary Toyekoyah’s shot in the lane at the last second gave Apache a 71-70 victory, knocking the Golden Tigers out of the playoffs.
Lockhart said the team didn’t really talk about it, but everybody knew it was the goal to get back to state for his sophomore year, and Talihina went 23-4, ranked No. 4.
“As a team, we played very unselfish,” Lockhart said. “No one cared who got the glory. We were just (a) team-first mentality.”
A 49-34 win against Lincoln Christian set up a trip to the Big House for Talihina in what was its first win at the state tournament since defeating Colbert, 61-52, in 1980.
“I didn’t actually know if I’d ever make it there, but I did, and it felt really great,” Eagle Road said.
A 61-59 win against Fairview meant a trip to the state championship game against defending champion Pawnee.
“Our kids knew it was going to be a challenge, but I think that was one strength of those teams is they accepted challenge very well,” Gillespie said of the 2009 state championship appearance.
The Golden Tigers started the game on a 10-2 run against the Black Bears. They held the lead at the half and after three quarters. However, the two teams went into overtime despite Talihina leading, 42-39, with just more than two minutes left to play.
“We knew that we had kind of lost the lead there towards the end, but still knew that we had a chance to win it,” Lockhart said. “I think we were all confident that we were going to win it.”
The Black Bears shut down the Golden Tigers in overtime. Lockhart’s 16 points and 10 rebounds were not enough. He tried to get some last second shots in overtime underneath the basket, but Desmond McCosar of Pawnee denied him twice. The Black Bears repeated, 44-43.
Lockhart said Talihina was even hungrier after the close loss. The Golden Tigers returned and had little trouble in the first two rounds at the state tournament. The Golden Tigers bested Mangum, 68-47, in the opening round, and Dale, 58-34, in the semis.
Talihina had wanted Pawnee for a rematch, Lockhart said.
“We were rooting for them,” he said.
The Black Bears dispatched Lincoln Christian, 65-43, in the opening round, and took down Watonga, 71-61.
The rematch was set.
Yet the Golden Tigers had a deficit as large as nine in the opening half.
“If we would’ve played better the first half, I think we would’ve been fine,” Eagle Road said.
Eagle Road banked five shots for three, finishing with 20. His shooting from deep helped put Talihina back into things.
His 3-pointers trimmed the deficit to one, and one of Lockhart’s shots from deep pulled Talihina out in front for the first time, but a Ralston Moore layup knotted things up and neither team scored in the final two minutes, thus setting up another overtime between the two teams for the second year in a row.
Pawnee held a 55-52 lead, but Lockhart had a 3-pointer in overtime that tied the game.
The Black Bears held onto the ball for the last possession, and Moore drove to the hoop with roughly six seconds to go.
Talihina’s Garrett Williams tried to take a charge, but instead a foul was called, putting Moore at the line to shoot two.
“I thought it was a charge, but it was a bang-bang play,” Gillespie said.
He missed his first, but, despite efforts from Lockhart and Eagle Road to fire up the crowd, Moore sank his second shot.
Marcus Sullivan threw an inbounds pass to Eagle Road. Eagle Road said he took three dribbles and got to the free throw line. He had a floater, but it failed to go in at the buzzer.
“I took it really hard,” Eagle Road said. “I made that shot a lot before. I felt like I should’ve made it and I didn’t.”
It was deja vu. Pawnee had three-peated, and Talihina came up short by one point to the same team in overtime for the second consecutive year.
“It was something that we had been working so hard for the last two or three years and we’d been there twice, and both times kind of let it slip through our fingers,” Lockhart said. “It was just kind of a heartbreak moment.”
Lockhart said Talihina was confident in its game and one another. He said the biggest obstacle was to not fall into the hype as a title favorite going into his senior year.
The Golden Tigers were the No. 2 ranked team in Class 2A, behind only Millwood, which fell to Class 2A after previously being in Class 3A.
“We kind of expected it to be them and us in the finals,” Lockhart said.
Sure enough, Talihina took care of business in the first two rounds. The Golden Tigers took down Choteau, 43-33, and then Stratford, 71-57, in the semifinals.
However, a plot twist came up with the result of an unexpected opponent in the state championship: Preston.
The 2009 Class A state champion Pirates had moved to Class 2A, knocking off Millwood, 50-35, and thus it would be No. 5 Preston instead which would try to stand in Talihina’s way in 2011. It was a rematch of the area championship, which the Golden Tigers won.
“I can remember being in the hotel and we saw the score and we were all very excited and kind of knew that as long as we just go take care of business, we will win the game,” Lockhart said. “We knew they weren’t better than us.”
The Golden Tigers began the game on a 21-9 run. They allowed the Pirates to go on a 16-1 run and take the lead. However, Talihina would not be denied the championship a third straight year.
Lockhart scored 17 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Eagle Road finished with 10 points, five rebounds and three steals. One of Eagle Road’s buckets was a two-handed jam when he sprinted down the floor following a Lockhart board.
“I knew when he made that, it was over,” Gillespie said of Eagle Road’s dunk.
The Golden Tigers emerged victorious, 42-27.
“We had been waiting for that moment for a while,” Lockhart said. “...To finally win it and be the first ones to do it for the town of Talihina was an extreme honor and something that we had been working for for so long that we were kind of all overwhelmed with emotion and just a great moment that none of us will ever forget.”
Lockhart recalled when he used to attend games at the Big House with his father, Jason Lockhart. The younger Lockhart promised to his father he would play at the venue one day; and it was none other than his father who put the championship winning medal around his son’s neck after Talihina went all the way.
“I think he was kind of emotional, I was kind of emotional and we shared some tears there,” Taggart Lockhart said.
Gillespie said he put a lot of pressure on himself to win a state championship, but didn’t know how much pressure his players felt until after they won it. He said there was happiness, but also relief, that they won it.
Taggart Lockhart experienced similar heartbreak as the first-year coach for Talihina in 2018. The Golden Tigers had a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter against Hooker in the state quarterfinals, only to lose, 45-43.
Coach Lockhart and assistant coach Toby Hawkins, who was on the state quarterfinal Talihina team in 2008, told the team they had been there and it wasn’t fun, but it was part of life.
The Golden Tigers could bounce back this year, as they defeated Canadian, 71-58, in the first round of the area consolation round on Thursday at Shawnee.
“I think he’ll have a chance to win another gold ball,” Gillespie said of his former player.